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Gypsies: The Outsiders

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Gypsies: Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust

the child Maria Bihari as catalogued by the Racial Hygiene Research Unit
Photograph by AKG London

Sad eyes. A pinched lip. What fears gripped Maria Bihari? Sitting through a series of mug shots, she became one of unknown numbers of German Gypsies who were catalogued by the Racial Hygiene Research Unit, a part of Hitler’s Public Health Ministry. Gathering little more than individual names and birthdates, Nazis went from one Gypsy camp to another to survey residents. But the notation of zigeuner, the derogatory German word for Gypsy, was enough to send a person to a concentration camp. Perhaps Maria’s fear was of the unknown. Or perhaps she knew her destiny far too well.

Zigeuner! The name is of unknown origin, but over time Germans spat out their word for Gypsies as easily as they spoke it. Those who sized up the black-haired, dark-skinned people as they began to arrive from India in the 1300s soon labeled them as different, setting off centuries of ostracism and persecution, historical hostilities that led to the death of unknown numbers in Nazi concentration camps.

Few Germans could grasp the Gypsy way of life. Who in their right mind, they wondered, would scoff at the comforts of a stable home to hitch a horse to a wagon and roam the land without direction? Whether real or imagined, the possibility of Gypsies spying for the Turks may have so threatened kings and Kaisers from the 1400s and beyond that they are believed to have issued countless edicts declaring them outlaws. In 1710 Frederick I is said to have even ordered the construction of a gallows bearing the carved words: “The penalty of thieving and Gypsy riff-raff.” For a society filled with the spirit of Enlightenment, which stressed an honorable work ethic, vagrant Gypsies provoked scorn.

Then in 1783, historian Heinrich Moritz penned the first extensive German work on the outcasts. Promoted as science, it read: “They are opposed to all forms of work when it is laborious and demands great effort.” That was enough for the German citizenry. With their teeth already on edge, they devoured anti-Gypsy sentiment.

For more than a century after, successive governments tried to assimilate the nomads into the larger society through education, intent on erasing them culturally if not physically—at least for a time. That motive darkened and grew more sinister by the time the Nazi regime came to power in the 1930s. No longer just an identifying name, zigeuner had become a venomous racial slur. Gypsies followed close behind Jews as enemies of the German people, having no place in Adolf Hitler’s ideal of a racially pure Aryan state. To bar them from attending the 1936 Olympic Games, Hitler had 600 Gypsies transported from Berlin to a concentration camp east of the city. Unable to tolerate the presence of the “antisocial malefactors” any longer, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler signed an order in 1938 “to pursue a settlement of the Gypsy problems on grounds of race.” Mass deportations to concentration camps began two years later. By the end of 1944 the Racial Hygiene Research Unit, an arm of the Third Reich’s Public Health Ministry, had drafted some 24,000 documents that decided whether a Gypsy inmate lived or died. Those who were not killed right off were forced into slave labor and subjected to compulsory sterilization and nightmarish medical experiments. Eventually, though, untold numbers drew a last burning breath in the gas chambers.

Today scholars and politicians argue whether the extermination of Jews and Gypsies is historically comparable, how many Gypsies were actually murdered by the Nazis (some estimate as many as 500,000), and what kind of memorial should be erected at the Berlin Parliament in their honor.

Determined to shed the stigma attached to zigeuner, two German Gypsy factions over time began calling themselves Sinti and Roma. But by 1994 the new names had failed to result in a new image; that year nearly two-thirds of German citizens declared that they would not accept Sinti and Roma as neighbors.

The first glimmer of change came in 1997. Germany declared that Sinti and Roma with established German roots would be recognized for the first time as a national ethnic minority. Perhaps the new millennium heralds a new beginning for long-suffering Gypsies, replacing intolerance with acceptance.

—Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

Based on a sidebar published this month in National Geographic Deutschland, the German-language edition of National Geographic magazine.

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